Tag Archives: guide dogs

Bidding a Fond Farewell: a Tribute to Knight, 2002-2017

Dear Knight,
Whenever someone who hasn’t met you asks me to tell them a story about what you were like, I tell the story of the day we met. It was a hot, sticky, Long Island day in mid-July, the summer before my junior year of college, and I was about to embark on my greatest adult adventure to date: moving off-campus into an apartment with two of my best friends. Quick walks to class from my dorm to the main campus would now be replaced by arranging my own transportation. No more popping into the campus café for my customary tuna sandwich on the way home from class; now I had to walk across the street to the local Super-Target for my groceries. Increased independence meant increased mobility, and getting a guide dog seemed, to me, the blind equivalent of receiving a driver’s license. Not to mention, being a young woman with a disability, I saw a certain appeal in having the security of a big scary dog. As it turned out, our nearest neighbors were a group of boys whose major threat seemed to be smoking marijuana, playing beer-pong, and reciting drunken, impromptu poetry to us as we passed in the hall, and you were more afraid of them than they were of you, but that’s another story.

As soon as I completed summer classes, I boarded a plane to Smithtown, New York to spend four weeks at the Guide Dog Foundation, learning how to navigate the world with a furry, four-legged pair of eyes. After two days of introductory instruction on guide dog handling and dormitory rules, which included, among other things, no dogs on the bed, we were called into the lounge to receive our dogs’ names before returning to our rooms to wait for trainers to bring them to us so we could spend a few minutes bonding before our first walk. I remember very little about the wait time, other than wiping my sweaty palms on the white shorts that I really wished I hadn’t packed for the trip once I learned you were a black Lab. Eventually, a knock sounded at the door, a trainer entered, placed a leather leash in my hand, and backed out.
“So, what now?” I thought as I ran tentative fingers along your silky ears—ears that would soon listen to and put up with more than any human I’d ever known. For the first, but not the last time, you seemed to read my mind. Sensing my hesitation, you cocked your ears, put your head on one side and regarded me with mild curiosity. Then, without invitation, you leapt onto the bed, settled down in the center, rested your head on your front paws, and thumped your tail once as if to say, “Okay, I’m waiting. I’ve got a job to do here.” There was that rule about dogs on the bed, but apparently it didn’t apply to you. Rules were for anyone who didn’t know their way around the world; you did, and you wasted no time letting me know that.

At only 19 months old, you possessed the poise and wisdom of one who had seen, done, and learned much; you sized me up and decided you were smarter than I was, and you took it upon yourself to show me that whatever we did, wherever we went, we did it your way or not at all. Over the next four weeks of training, we butted heads a lot. One afternoon, we took 45 minutes to complete a route that should have only taken us 15, and probably would have if I’d listened to you and turned right at that corner instead of crossing the street. If you could talk, you’d insist that we didn’t actually get lost in the middle of Flushing; I got lost. You just went along with my stupidity to silently teach me a lesson. You did that a lot, and eventually, after countless wrong turns, a few floods of tears, and several scraped knees, I began to listen to your words of wisdom, spoken in the quiet, self-assured way you carried yourself in every situation. When I wanted to turn left and you knew we needed to turn right, you’d stand perfectly still and swish your tail against my thigh. “Trust me, I know what I’m doing,” you seemed to say.

We took a lot of walks during the years we spent together, traversing everything from college campuses to crowded airports. In your spare time, you chased lizards, rifled trash cans, discovered how to pry the lid off a container of dog treats, and insisted that however much room you had to yourself, the best place to sleep was on my feet. You loved wishbone chew toys, having your ears scratched, and licking babies’ fingers; you feared absolutely nothing—the single exception being inflatable snowmen, for reasons that none of us have ever satisfactorily understood. You graduated college with me, yawned your way through my Master’s degree, and when I embarked on my first semester of teaching, you were everyone’s favorite student. You even saw me through the first two years of earning a PhD before you decided you’d had more than enough school than any dog should have to endure.

It seemed fitting that the last journey we took together was the plane ride back to New York, to the very same spot where we first met. As the moment of separation approached, I wished, not for the first time, that God had seen fit to give dogs the capacity for speech. How was I going to explain to you that when I kissed your nose and said goodbye, it would be for the last time? I was returning to the Foundation to train with a second dog, and while I knew rationally that I would come to love your successor as much as I loved you, handing your leash off to my uncle, who’d generously offered you a retirement home with his family, felt like detaching a piece of my heart. When my uncle walked back out to the car to take you to his home—your new home—would you wonder where I was?

Even as, hours later, my lap and heart made room for a new friend, I wondered about you. Were you looking for me? Would you be happy? I stopped worrying when my uncle called to tell me that the first thing you did when you arrived at your new home was jump on the couch and knock over the Emmy Award statuette my uncle had received for his graphics work for NBC during the 1992 Olympic Games. I was mortified; you shrugged it off with one dismissive tail-wag. The fact that they kept you after that is a true testament to how easily people fell in love with you. I’d spend the next six years receiving regular bulletins from my family about your adventures in retirement, which consisted primarily of indulging in the forbidden fruits of a working dog: sleeping on furniture, feasting on table scraps, and being generally lazy. True to your nature, however, you continued to live a life of service to others, devoting yourself to the business of loving your family with the dedication of one who takes pride in having a job to do, even if that job was as simple as being there with a wet tongue and a wagging tail at the end of a long day. You approached life with a Zen-like calm that I always envied and never mastered. You left indelible pawprints on the world and the hearts of everyone whose hand you licked.

When, several weeks ago, it came time for you to leave us, you made your exit as you did all things—in your way, on your terms. Under no circumstances would you forgo your last bowl of kibble; the journey across the Rainbow Bridge was long, after all, and you needed sustenance. I laughed when I learned that, on arriving at the vet for the last time, you wouldn’t settle until you’d shoved your head into a box of blankets for one last, great sniff, and finally, when you were ready, you lay down. I wasn’t surprised to be told that the last look in your philosophical brown eyes was one of all-knowing peace: “I was given a job, I did what I came here to do, and now it’s time for me to leave.”

Some religious doctrine tells us that dogs have no afterlife because they have no souls, but a dog is the absolute embodiment of unconditional love, and what is the soul if not a reflection of God’s love? You were formed for a purpose by the Creator of all things, and I can do no less than believe that when your soul crossed that rainbow bridge, the Creator was there to greet you with a much-deserved pat for a job well done. May you have endless space to run, your wishbones have eternal flavor, your ears be always scratched, and your tail wag eternally.

A Walk on the Wild Side: What Guide Dogs can Teach you About Life, the Universe, and Everything

So, for something a little bit different for this blog, you get two bloggers for the price of one! We happened to be thinking about the same sort of thing at the same time, and agreed to collaborate! Since we are posting this entry simultaneously on each of our blogs, I figure an introduction is an order:

Blindbeader (real name relatively unknown): working her first guide dog, Jenny. Somewhat of a perfectionist, loves the challenges of life but would sometimes like the world to slow down a bit. Eats too much chocolate, drinks far too much coffee, and yet somehow manages to stay employed, athletic, and reasonably sane. Follow her on Twitter

Francesca (Twitter handle @poetprodigy7): Working with her second guide dog, Zeus, AKA espresso on four legs. Writer, teacher, self-deprecatingly funny, sometimes refers to herself as the blind Bridget Jones. Addicted to coffee, chocolate, Colin Firth, and the Big Bang theory (not necessarily in that order).

Guide Dogs- Living in the Real World

Francesca: Several weeks ago, on a cold, gray, misty Monday, I dutifully donned my raincoat and ventured into the downpour to take my guide dog for his evening constitutional.
Under normal circumstances, he would, Labrador that he is, have raised no objections to getting wet; this day, however, he was recovering from a mysterious episode of stomach upset, and I might have foregone the walk until the rain subsided, but for the fact that I was endeavoring to avoid an unmitigated disaster of the nature that would require a professional carpet cleaner.

Given that both of us were wet, tired, and anxious, it should come as no surprise that Zeus’s distraction resulted in us becoming slightly (or completely) disoriented. How was it that the dog who keeps me from falling down stairs and has been known to plant his paws between me and oncoming vehicles couldn’t even locate our front door? Too wet to ponder the incongruity of it all, when we finally found our way back home, I promptly sat down on the couch and cried for about fifteen minutes.

Anyone who has ever been the two-legged part of a guide dog team knows this story all-too well, and yet as many of us will attest, even on the worst days—when your dog has barked in harness, or nicked a bite of your co-worker’s peanut butter sandwich—we’d far rather walk on the wild side of life with our crazy companions than take that journey alone. Between two dogs, I have a combined total of nearly eleven years of experience as a guide dog handler, and I use the term experience euphemistically here to mean: “I’m still alive, and not in a full body cast, so I must be doing something right.” When I experience moments of self-doubt, I sometimes force myself to step back and think about just how much my dogs have taught me about friendship, bravery, and blind faith. At the risk of sounding like the amazing guide dog whisperer, then, being a guide dog handler has taught me several lessons about life.

Zeus naps by the pool; beside him is an empty wine glass.
This is the life!

Blindbeader: 18 months ago, when I started training with my first guide dog, Jenny, I felt incredibly overwhelmed by the entire process. I had practical questions that had been asked and answered, but I wanted to know more about that emotional – almost mystical – bond between guide dog and handler. The problem was, I didn’t even know what questions to ask, much less the answers I needed to hear.

Lately, I have come across many people who have just started training or just come home with new guides, as well as those that are in the application process or waiting for class dates. Here are many pointers that I wish someone had told me before I first opened my door – and my heart – to the most stubborn dog in the world.

Blindbeader and Jenny waiting for a water taxi in NYC
Jenny hates boats, and yet here we are waiting for one in NYC!

Francesca: A bad day is just that: one day out of the hopefully innumerable ones I will live. When I have a bad day at work, I drown my sorrows in tears and vodka.
When Zeus has a bad day at work, he wags his tail, licks my hand, and shrugs it off. Whether this is because he believes in a better tomorrow or because Labradors have notoriously short-term memories, his approach seems far more emotionally balanced.

Blindbeader: Your dog will test you, period! It varies in scope, intensity, duration, and activity, but almost all new dogs WILL push the boundaries. This does NOT mean that there is anything inherently wrong with handler or dog.
I’ve been there, though, at a time when all of my guide dog handler friends told me that their dog NEVER did activity X or didn’t have bad habit Y. Thankfully, we worked through it with a lot of hard work, some frustration, and huge parties on street corners when Jenny took me to the light pole without grabbing the garbage at the bottom of it.
If the dog is being unsafe, however, or there hasn’t been improvement (And I mean, even a LITTLE), guide dog schools generally have followup services either on request or on a regular basis; use them! Or ask questions of other guide dog handlers, who have been in the trenches and can offer a variety of suggestions. I just have to remember that many first-time long-time handlers can have selective amnesia. If I ever get that way, knock me upside the head!

Francesca: Sometimes, work can wait. Even when my dog isn’t in harness, rarely is he off-duty. Even when we’re taking a leisurely stroll to nowhere in particular, he is always multitasking, concentrating half on the business of fertilizing the neighborhood grass and half on the business of ensuring that I don’t sprain my ankle falling over a tree root. Whenever he tosses his favorite toy into my lap or wedges his nose between my hand and the laptop keyboard, he reminds me to check the proverbial warning light on my brain’s battery and occasionally power down and recharge.

Blindbeader: I so second this one! If a guide dog has time to be a DOG, to bond with his/her handler, it does make him or her a better guide in the long run. It took me about six months to realize when Jenny was exhibiting more frequent distracted behaviors, then it was time for a good long run, or a seriously wicked game of tug. That done, she would be able to focus on her work, and everyone was happier.

Francesca: Learn to let it go. One day, my dog stopped me from falling off a drop in the sidewalk because I was far too intent on a conversation with my friend to notice the change in elevation. The moment we got home, he immediately rewarded himself by, for reasons which remain clear only to him, stealing a pair of my underwear from the laundry basket. While I naturally corrected him for this, I didn’t dwell on the mishap with my usual scab-picking intensity, because I was still grateful for the fact that I wasn’t doing the bunny hop on a broken leg. Case in point: things could always be worse. Appreciate it when they’re not.

Be prepared for your dog to occasionally make you look really really really dumb. I was in a familiar area while training with Jenny one day, and I told her to move forward. She stopped, I corrected her, and told her to move forward. She eventually did… and led me straight into a gravel pit. Oops! The first thing they drill into your head at guide dog school is “Trust your Dog!” and this has served me well more often than not. Sometimes I get to know why my dog did what she did; other times I just shake my head and just wonder why she chose to quite determinedly run me through that parking lot, but the dog has two working eyeballs, and I certainly do not! Then again, there are times Jenny IS doing something she shouldn’t, making me look silly; in two minutes the dog will forget about it, and you should too!

Francesca: It takes more strength to hold a grudge than to let go of one. Have you ever tried to stay angry at a Labrador? It works about as well as defying the laws of gravity. No matter how frustrated I sometimes find myself with my dog, he always manages to win me over with his puppy dog penitence, and this reminder to forgive and forget has served me well in the relationships I cultivate with others. Perhaps Woodrow Wilson said it best: “if a dog will not come to you after having looked you in the face, you should go home and examine your conscience.”

Blindbeader: Pick your battles! There are some things guide dogs should NOT do:
scavenge, chase after other dogs, get up and wander around on their own. That being said, all dogs have quirks; some can be trained out of them, others are just interesting little fringe benefits. Jenny does not like guiding me through puddles (or getting her feet wet at all); however, she will do it if she has to. I can decide that, well, she is the dog and I am the human, so by God, she will guide me through that puddle! Or I can just be thankful that my shoes stay dry and I don’t have to worry so much about the ice hiding underneath all that water. Guess what I picked (Hint: my shoes tend to stay dry…)

Francesca: You can, contrary to popular belief, perform essential functions without the benefit of caffeine. At least once a week, I am heard to declare that the fact that I feed and walk my dog every morning before I’ve had my first cup of coffee testifies to my undying appreciation for the sacrifices he makes daily to keep me safe. (Including making sure that I don’t mortally wound myself when I attempt to move without first fueling myself with caffeine). There’s a reason I refer to my overly frisky, furry eyeballs as espresso on four legs. One shot of him propels me pretty efficiently through the first fifteen minutes of my day.

(On a totally different note) Guide dog school has good suggestions, maybe even great ones, but much of what you learn is done after formal training is over.
This is OK, and, in fact, necessary. You will laugh when your dog shows you – in that cute way he has – that your safety is in his paws, and by the way you should trust him because he has two fully functioning eyeballs *you do not) and is walking you calmly around that open car door…
You will cry with frustration on a day when it all just goes to hell and there’s no rhyme or reason why. You will sing for joy on the first day you just “click.” And you have good days and bad days, sometimes feeling like you have the most intelligent creature on the planet and other times wondering why this little demon from hell is taking up space in your apartment.

I don’t mean to sound like having a guide dog is this painful drudgery; trust me, it isn’t! But I have seen so many guide dog handlers get discouraged that things aren’t going well and it isn’t working like it shows on TV or did in class. I LOVE having a guide dog. I love putting in the work to shape her behavior that will make her a better guide and us a better team.
When a concept we’ve been working on for months clicks in her head, I almost don’t have to praise her because her head is up and her tail is wagging happily; I praise her to the skies anyway. The day during training when she pulled me out of the path of a bus, I had no idea how many other close calls we would dodge over the next 18 months. If I get to stay safe, trusting my life to her two working eyeballs and four stinky paws, I’d gladly take the occasional cracker away from her…

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